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qathet students plan cultural exchange

Brooks Secondary School band, choir members prepare for Cuba trip
BAND BONDING: Brooks Secondary School band students [from left] Loukas Paquette and Reed Worthen, teachers Steven Cramaro and Paul Cummings, and student Safiyah Dyck, are part of a contingent preparing for a band and choir trip to Cuba during spring break in March 2024. Trip organizers are looking for band instruments in good working condition that the students can take with them and play, and then leave behind for band students in Cuba.

For qathet School District band teacher Steven Cramaro, next year’s Brooks Secondary School band and choir trip to Cuba will be a matter of coming full circle.

Cramaro was a student at Brooks when fellow band teacher Paul Cummings organized the first trip. Now, Cramaro, having studied music at university after his graduation from Brooks and becoming a music teacher there, is helping organize the latest venture, which will be taking place during spring break in March 2024.

Cummings said he became involved in organizing trips to Cuba after he had heard from music teacher colleagues about what a great experience it was going there and performing. He said the first time he went, he shadowed a high school group from Edmonton to see what the experience was like.

Impressed with Cuba

Cummings was impressed with the adventure and so began organizing the first journey, which included Cramaro and a host of other music students at Brooks. Cummings said the 2024 Cuba trip will be the sixth with students.

“When I went to Cuba on that first trip, I came back with my jaw on the floor,” said Cummings. “Cuba is such an unbelievable country. They are the most resilient people and they’re well educated and proud people.”

Cummings said travel for the coming trip is extensive, with the music students spending 10 days and nine nights in Cuba. His students get together with Cuban students every day.

“We consider it a cultural exchange,” said Cummings. “Obviously, the Cuban students don’t have the opportunity to come to Canada, so all the exchange of culture happens when we are down there.

“We’ll have the opportunity to play in four or five schools. We have an opportunity to perform for each other, and share meals. And dance. After every performance, a salsa band will start. Cubans will come and grab us and we’ll dance away and start making friends.”

Musical culture

Cummings said the Cubans love music so much.

“They embrace it as a whole nation,” said Cummings. “They are very interested in the music we perform, but they cannot wait to play music to which you can move.

“Their rhythms are extraordinary, like the most intricate on earth. They are layered on top of each other, and for our western ears, we can’t follow it. It’s amazing.”

Cummings said the trip is an eye-opener for the Brooks students, which will comprise both band and choir members this trip.

“We opened it up to all our senior groups,” said Cummings. “We have 55 students who have signed up, but there’s tremendous overlap, and there are band students who also sing. So, out of those 55 students, I have a 28-voice chamber choir. I’ve got an almost 40-piece concert band. Pretty much everyone who plays in jazz band plays in concert band. So, out of those 55 students, we have four very healthy groups.”

In terms of repertoire, the musicians and singers started honing the selections after the winter night of music performances last month. The concert band will be learning the Cuban national anthem and the choir will be working on a Spanish selection.

“We have a few little gems that we’ll inject into our repertoire while we are there,” said Cummings.

Cramaro said participating in this year’s trip is a lovely culmination of a circle.

“I went on the very first Cuba trip that Paul put on and now this will be my very first international trip as Paul’s teaching partner,” said Cramaro.

He said as a student going to Cuba, he had so much fun during his time in the Caribbean nation.

Students experience a different world

“Coming from a small community on the west coast of Canada and being dropped into the downtown core of Havana was mind-boggling,” said Cramaro. “We found out that it was a completely different musical experience for us and we were exposed to a completely different culture. The music and the dance and all the art was wildly different than anything I had experienced. Going there was a great opportunity to broaden my worldview.”

Welcoming community

Cramaro said the Brooks band students were well received in Cuba, playing traditional western European concert music in the concert band, and jazz selections with the jazz band. In return, he heard Afro-Cuban music, the rumbas and salsa, and all the dancing that goes along with it.

“The Cuban people exude rhythm and music,” said Cramaro. “It was really something to experience and I’m looking forward to bringing our students down there next year to experience it for themselves.

“The Cuban people were so welcoming to us. There is such a lovely community of people there. Looking back on my first trip to Cuba, they are so hospitable and will help you with anything,”

Those travelling to Cuba will be older and more experienced musical students. Cramaro said the travellers will be in grades 10 to 12. In addition to playing concerts and meeting with the Cuban people, students will also be getting some beach time.

Band instrument donation

One of the important features of the trip is distributing band instruments to the Cuban students. During the first trip, Brooks band students were able to outfit an entire concert band in Cuba with donated instruments. Cummings said he has meetings with Cuban conductors and offers them instruments as a small token of appreciation for hosting the Brooks contingent. In past, the conductors have been “beside themselves.”

Cummings said on the last trip, before the COVID-19 pandemic, he donated instruments, allowing a community band to expand substantially. The band’s director was in tears, added Cummings.

People with instruments to donate can contact Cramaro at [email protected]. Band trip organizers are looking for traditional band instruments that are in good working condition, so Brooks students can perform with them in Cuba and then leave them behind.

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